Fearing Watchdog's Bark, Government Okays NIS 100 Million for Firefighters

The government has approved an additional budgeting of NIS 100 million for the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, for purchase of fire trucks, equipment and recruitment of additional staff.

Galilee forest fire.
Yaron Kaminsky

Firefighters have demanded an extra development budget for years, even taking industrial action, but an impending State Comptroller's report on firefighting and the recent spate of forest fires appear to have given the government the final incentive for the move.

The country's firefighters went on strike last year, protesting cuts to the fire and rescue budget and demanding the hiring of extra staff. They invoked international regulations, which require one firefighter per thousand residents, while in Israel the ratio is closer to one firefighter per 10,000 people. "We don't want a pay rise - we want more crews and new fire trucks," one firefighting official said at the time.

"We've been saying for years that our situation is deteriorating," said Fire and Rescue Commissioner Shimon Romach. "The recent fires highlighted our limitations at this point in time."

Yishai praised

Romach said that recent Home Front Command drills have also highlighted the weakness of Israel's fire fighting abilities. He praised Interior Minister Eli Yishai and the director general of the interior ministry, who "worked more energetically than their predecessors to promote the extra budgeting."

However, Haaretz has learned that another powerful consideration behind the minister's newfound energy was the impending publication of a state comptroller's report focusing on the state of firefighting services in Israel. Sources in the comptroller's office confirmed to Haaretz they are in the middle of inspecting the fire fighting services, and noted that they have asked interior ministry officials to address faults and flaws they found in the initial stages of inspections.

An Interior Ministry spokesperson said in response that the Prime Minister's Office resolved five months ago to upgrade the number of firefighters and level of equipment to those of other developed countries, "quite unrelated to any other issue," adding that the request came in the wake of a thorough report covering the state of fire services in Israel as compared to other countries.

"Most of the budget will go into purchasing new fire trucks, especially in outlying areas," Romach said. "Funds will also go into reinforcing fire stations, purchasing personal emergency equipment for firefighters including flack jackets, and recruiting 50 to 60 new staff members."

The current budget of the Fire and Rescue Services is about NIS 560 million, jointly supported by the state, local authorities and the services' own income. Romach said the new addition was far from enough, "but in our terms it's revolutionary."

Chairman of the National Firefighters Organization, Yoav Gadasi, said he was very pleased with the decision. "Now we can come to work smiling. We've really reached the edge in recent months and this decision is like a rope thrown to a drowning man."